Bear Island

Passamaquoddy Homeland

The original territory of the Passamaquoddies

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The Passamaquoddy people are part of an ancient culture that has inhabited parts of Maine and New Brunswick since before recorded history, forming a bond with their land that outsiders cannot understand (Ghere). Originally a fishing society, the Passamaquoddy once lived off food hunted or gathered from nearby bays, rivers, lakes, and forests (Welker). They lived in family camps that migrated seasonally, often trading and merging with other families although they never technically united as a single tribe. Usually, families camped on the coast, occasionally venturing to inland forests or nearby islands as needed. The Passamaquoddy indigenous traditions included a close, spiritual connection with the land around them, as they recognized its power and importance in sustaining the base of their existence, religion, and society (Ghere; Graettinger). Passamaquoddies see their land as a part of their identity, defining their meaning of life, and believe that without their sacred land the Passamaquoddy culture would cease to exist (Ghere).

When Europeans landed on the East coast of North America in 1604, they were greeted by the Passamaquoddies, marking the beginning of a long, tumultuous and destructive relationship. Although the first meetings of the two cultures were not violent, they soon became so, as relations were ridden with mounting tension and land disputes. Later on, Europeans introduced smallpox to the Indigenous Nations, causing an epidemic that killed over 75 percent of the East coast natives (Ghere). The Passamaquoddy people were devastated by smallpox, as their population dwindled from a few thousand to approximately 150 individuals (Ibsgwatch). Many of the dead were buried on Muwinwi Monihq, also known as Bear Island, as the individuals buried there were primarily from the Bear Clan (Aull). At this time most formerly Passamaquoddy land now belonged to the state of Maine, including Bear Island. Maine had granted tribal representatives the right to speak at state legislature meetings, although Indigenous Nations were not allowed to vote until 1954 (Ghere).

The Passamaquoddy Nation has a strong connection with their ancestors and burial grounds, believing that the dead should be honored and cared for similarly to living relatives. If a Passamaquoddy ancestor is not resting in peace, living Passamaquoddies cannot rest either (Ibsgwatch). The many ancestors buried on Bear Island made it sacred land for the Passamaquoddy Nation, who despite minimal funding attempted to buy Bear Island back on numerous occasions (Graettinger). There is not ample information for why the offers for purchase were denied, but it was likely because the Passamaquoddies did not have enough money. In short, the Passamaquoddy Nation was denied the opportunity to buy back land that had once been stolen from them because they had been impoverished by Europeans and their descendents. Sadly, it was the same Europeans that made the land so sacred by causing mass deaths of the indigenous people, making a cycle of unfair exploitation that left Passamaquoddies helpless and unable to honor their ancestors.

The situation finally changed in 2001, when a Canadian paper company called Domtar Industries Inc. bought Bear Island as an acquisition because of the paper mill built there by another company (Graettinger). Soon after the purchase, officials at Domtar began talking to the Passamaquoddy Nation, and realized that although Domtar legally owned the island, it belonged to the indigenous people in a much more powerful way. Domtar made the impressive decision to return Bear Island to the Passamaquoddies, demonstrating a level of financial and emotional support for the spiritual beliefs of Indigenous Nations not often seen from European descendents. Domtar officials revealed that they had wanted to see the land returned to its native people for a number of years, and were happy to facilitate that opportunity (Ibsgwatch). Domtar officials had been touched by the statements of Donald Soctomah, a Passamaquoddy representative for the state of Maine, who explained that the indigenous people needed the sacred island “to ensure [their] ancestors’ remains were given all the respect they deserve” (Graettinger).

The ceremony returning Bear Island to the Passamaquoddy nation was emotionally charged with sadness, gratitude, and hope. Maine State Representative Donald Soctomah attended the pipe ceremony along with tribal elders, members of Domtar, and reporters. Everyone engaged in a mixture of Christian prayer, dancing, and indigenous drumming to unite the two cultures and show mutual respect (Aull). As the ceremony came to a close, an American eagle flew overhead. Donald Soctomah announced that Passamaquoddies believe their “ancestors look through the eyes of the eagle,” and that the eagle watching the ceremony made it “a truly special day” (Graettinger). The indigenous attendees were not the only ones touched by the symbolic transfer of sacred land. Domtar’s President Raymond Royer remarked that it was “a privilege for me to transfer back to the Passamaquoddy Tribe the deed to this ancestral land which played such an important role in ensuring your survival and guaranteeing your future” (Graettinger). Following this, Arne Neptune looked at the sky and proclaimed that the spirits of the Bear Clan of the Passamaquoddy could now rest because the island once again belongs to the tribe (Graettinger).

Although the story of the Passamaquoddy Nation’s struggle is tragic, both on and off Bear Island, this small token of European descendents’ sacrifice for the indigenous people gives me hope. No one forced Domtar to give the land back to the Passamaquoddies; it was given out of cross-cultural understanding and compassion. If a large company can muster this compassion and choose to honor beliefs while forgoing maximum monetary gain, it seems to me that anyone can. It is mainly a question of getting people to slow down and understand that the ways of another culture, while perhaps very different from their own, are just as meaningful as anything within their own culture. Someday, the indigenous peoples’ sacred land will be recognized as crucial to their religious traditions, culture, and personal happiness. I have faith that humans will progress to a point beyond selfishness and work to give everyone what they need to live a satisfying and complete life within our own separate yet connected cultures and backgrounds.

– Bailey Griscom

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